In the past two months, Leslie McClellon has raised plenty of eyebrows at the Rochester Community and Technical College.
First, there was the flap over a $6,800 mace — an ornate ceremonial staff — that was commissioned for her formal installation as the college’s president in September. And the $3,200 gold chain that was custom-made for the same occasion.
Now, she’s facing an open revolt on campus, just 17 months after taking office as the overwhelming favorite of faculty, staff and students alike.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a situation get this dire this fast in my 26-year career,” said Kevin Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty association, which represents instructors on 24 community colleges, including Rochester.
Since McClellon took office in July 2014, critics say, tensions have mounted over a series of controversial decisions, including program closings and hirings and firings.
On Wednesday, Lindstrom warned the system’s board of trustees that the Rochester campus “is in public crisis as we speak.” The problem, he said, is “incredibly urgent and getting worse by the hour.”
McClellon attributes much of the discontent to the “anxiety and uncertainty” that goes with any change in leadership. “Change is difficult,” she said. “I have worked very hard to be open and transparent about my vision and goals.” And she says that anyone with concerns is “welcome to come and speak with me.”
In early November, the backlash against McClellon intensified after she named an interim vice president, Anthony Brown, without disclosing his controversial past.
Just days after Brown’s appointment, the campus learned from news reports that he had left a North Carolina college in 2013 after an investigation found massive bungling of sexual assault complaints by the campus police, which he supervised. McClellon’s announcement of Brown’s hiring did not mention that he had worked at the college, Elizabeth City State University.
Student president Michael Wenzel fired off an indignant e-mail to McClellon.
“The students of RCTC demand that you terminate Dr. Brown effective immediately,” Wenzel wrote Nov. 4. Brown, he argued, had “presided over a student affairs division that failed to report, and in fact covered up, hundreds of criminal complaints, including as many as eighteen sexual assaults.” Wenzel also decried what he called the “mere appearance that this administration tried to hide Dr. Brown’s troubling history.”
Within hours, McClellon announced that Brown would not be taking the job, after all. “It became very clear very quickly that Dr. Brown would not have an opportunity to be successful here,” McClellon said in an interview.
But she defended her decision to hire him, noting that “he himself wasn’t implicated in any wrongdoing. It had to do with employees who report to him.” She also denied any attempt to cover up his past. “In the press release, we tried to be brief,” she said. “It wasn’t anything deliberate.”
But the latest incident appears to have galvanized opposition against her.
Steven Rosenstone, the chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, issued a brief statement Friday saying he was aware of the conflict. “From my perspective, the campus community is engaging in open and honest discussion about some very important and very sensitive issues, and I support the ongoing dialogue,” he said.
McClellon ‘the No. 1 choice’
When he hired her in April 2014, Rosenstone praised McClellon, who had been a vice president at the Community College of Denver, for her vision and ability to inspire. By all accounts, students and faculty were equally impressed.
“She was far and away the No. 1 choice of people on this campus,” said Wenzel, a 33-year-old computer science major.
But only six months after she arrived, the faculty union sent a three-page letter criticizing a series of her decisions, including closing two career programs and firing a popular vice president.
Then, in September, news broke that the college had spent $10,000 on a ceremonial mace and presidential chain for her installation, which coincided with the college’s 100th anniversary.
“Oh my goodness, my students were so upset,” said Shelli Arneson, an instructor in the human services program. The expenditures, she said, were “so out of character” for the college. “You look at the cost of the mace and the gold chain — think of the money that could have gone to student scholarships.”
Chad Israelson, a history instructor who heads the campus faculty union, noted that the college was facing a potential deficit of as much as $2 million at the time. “Is this what we should be spending our money on right now? That’s what people would say to me,” he said.
“Looking back, I do understand the concerns that many people have,” McClellon said this week. But she called the purchases a “one-time expense” to mark the college’s centennial, and noted that many four-year universities have ceremonial maces.
Jennifer Rogers, managing editor of the student newspaper, publicly came to her defense in October. “I find it disappointing that people are rolling their eyes,” she wrote in The Echo. “When it comes to funding a once-in-[a]-lifetime event, we should be able to spend enough money to create special memories.”
The final straw
The Brown incident, critics say, was the final straw, in part because McClellon had rejected all the candidates recommended by a campus search committee.
Two unions, representing faculty and administrative staff, issued statements supporting the student leader’s call for Brown’s dismissal.
“Somebody needed to say something,” said Wenzel. “The Anthony Brown situation that cropped up wasn’t an isolated incident.”
McClellon, however, said she’s ready to move ahead with the search for a new vice president. “It’s just an unfortunate situation,” she said.